Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Books as objects in the world

My colleague and great friend Mark Yakich's new book comes out this month; it's called Poetry: A Survivor's Guide and it is wonderful:

One small thing I love about it is that it includes a few of Mark's drawings; another thing I admire about this book is how it dares to be personal, how it tells a story about living with poetry as much as it gives practical instructions for surviving the experience of poetry (reading it, writing it).

Mark and I have collaborated on numerous projects over the past nearly seven years, and something we've always seen eye to eye on is the act of writing books as a matter of making objects in the world. While much of what goes on in the college classroom or in the solitary act of writing can be seen as abstruse or disconnected from life, there is nothing like seeing a book plop onto a table and then seeing how it moves around the world, to reassure that all this thinking, teaching, and writing amounts to something, or at least some thing.

If I haven't been writing much here on this blog, it's in part because find myself in a strange gelatinous realm where I am working on four different book projects that are staggered and weirdly related, but all requiring different modes of fiddling, writing, framing, and grant-applying.

The first one is the book Mark and I have been working on for several years, a collection called Airplane Reading. Last week Mark and I drove out to the New Orleans Lakefront Airport and sat in an empty cafe and wrote the introduction to this book; tomorrow we're going to go back out to the airport and finalize the order of pieces and submit the manuscript our press for the project, Zero Books. We're also going back and forth with the ever inspiring artist and designer Nancy Bernardo, who is fine tuning a zinger of a piece for the cover of this book. If everything stays on track, Airplane Reading will be published this coming spring. Getting away from the daily grind on our campus has helped us wrangle the project and get it into shape. It's also an incredible old airport terminal, perfect for lingering and reflection:

Next, I received a fellowship from Loyola for this coming summer to finish another project, a short book I'm calling "Liberal Arts at Work." This book is part manifesto, and part...well, "self-study." (I heard that phrase in a committee meeting yesterday.) The book also brushes up against the works of David Foster Wallace throughout, and I'm still figuring out how to highlight that aspect.

My big ongoing book project is the thing I have been calling (with increasing looseness) "Up in Michigan." It is a book about place, and what it means to write about place. This book has morphed in unexpected ways over the past few months, and I'm looking forward to really focusing on it—and finishing it—next year, when I'm on sabbatical. But in the meantime it is involving a lot of zooming out and trying to get a sense of it as a thing I can describe in graspable chunks—among other reasons, for the sake of a significant grant I am in the midst of applying for.

Finally, I realized over the past month or so that one more book on air travel has been congealing in my brain. This new one is called "The Nature of Flight," and it takes on more directly some of the eco-critical angles I've touched on in my other two books about airports.

Book projects keep me going. They connect me to others in the process of writing, and they result in things I can give to students, friends, and family. They're just books, I don't mean to make them a bigger deal than they are, but they are still real things that take on their own existence, objects in the world.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Return To Your Seat

I wrote most of the following piece a couple years ago at the urging of an editor for Travel + Leisure magazine; perhaps not surprisingly, it was a bit too abject for their tastes. Luckily I had a chance to revisit this material for my new mini Object Lesson up the Atlantic, "Consider the Lavatory."

Have you ever found yourself in the airplane lavatory, inspecting your visage in the hazy mirror, staged in the dim light, wondering how long you’ve been standing there, how much longer you can get away with it before another passenger or a flight attendant knocks on the door? It’s a little pentagon of privacy in the otherwise public oval of the airplane. But you can't stay for long.

From the Middle English lavatorie and the Medieval Latin lavatorium, both from the Latin lavare (to wash)—how do our modern airplane bathrooms cling to this ancient appellation? There is something weirdly timeless about this space: once you go in and shut the stiff yet flimsy plastic door, everything else in the airplane vanishes, muffled in some near distance. It is a place full of mystery and suspense.

There's the small sink with faucet of uncertain water pressure—is it going to shoot out with surprising force, or just dribble onto your fingers? There are the myriad signs, minimalist icons implying warnings and instructing things like DO NOT OPEN and DEPOSIT WASTE HERE. Red stripes of caution slash through simple humanoid forms. It is a tight space, over-brimming with communications. In the lavatory when the captain makes an announcement, for once it may sound like the captain is speaking to you alone. Occasionally you'll be in there when the plane starts shaking and a calm icon illuminates with a ding, a placid command: return to your seat.

Then there is the small molded toilet with its sketchy seat, the hinged and bouncing metal flap at the bottom of the bowl (sometimes laden with soggy toilet paper or worse), and the vortex of “blue juice” sucking into the void. Do you sit or try to stay propped up, awkwardly hovering over the bowl? How clean is this place, anyway? In fact, airlines are usually pretty good at cleaning lavatories regularly and thoroughly (I know—I used to have this job). As germ-filled and claustrophobic as the lavatory may feel when you are in it, it’s also likely that it is one of the cleanest public bathrooms you’ll ever use.

Once I entered a lavatory and was surprised to see the tiny sink filled with what at first looked like trash. When I looked closer, it was actually a rather careful arrangement of sanitizing napkins—the sink was inoperable, so a clever flight attendant had placed a bouquet of packaged hand wipes in the sink, and taped a note to the mirror instructing the passengers to use these instead of washing their hands. The lavatory became a place for creative problem solving. Such initiative, such industry!

Down the aisle, passengers sit and stare at the red cartoon that denotes OCCUPIED. Who is in there, and why are they taking so long? But these two experiences of time are so different, inside and outside the lav. Outside, in a cramped seat, time drags on and it can be hard to focus on things. But in the lavatory time stands still, and everything is in focus. It’s a small, usually windowless room where everything pops into distinction, and yet where everything becomes strange, too. Where exactly are you, here? “Lavatory”—the very name bespeaks some sort of untimely place, some space out of joint.  What rhymes with lavatory? A priori

So why do we retain this odd sounding word? Does it supply a bit more decorum on that most abject space visited during the already uncomfortable experience of flight? Perhaps the name makes the place sound more regal than its austere reality. If so, the lavatory may function as a metonymy for the whole experience of commercial flight: it’s made to sound better, or at least different, than it really is.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writing: sometimes it works

Writing: sometimes it works, especially when others are involved

Part of my job is to write. It's a weird part of the job because it's rather incalculable and very unpredictable—when it will happen, how it will turn out, whether it will end up in the dustbin of oblivion or be published somewhere (and then read or not, appreciated or spurned).

One of my students asked me the other day how I get from 'idea' to 'thing' when it comes to writing. Part of my answer involved collaboration: I would never get things done (much less started) without nudges, feedback, pushes, and pulls from the friends I've made and colleagues I've been lucky to have over the years. That's how the Brad Pitt book got written, and that's how Object Lessons was launched.

More recently, my great friend and colleague Mark Yakich and I co-wrote a short piece called "How Should a Professor Be?" This started off as a kind of tongue-in-cheek thought experiment, but as we wrote we gradually realized we had something to say that might actually be useful—for our own self-clarification, if nothing else. We were happy when an editor at Inside Higher Ed liked it and offered to publish it. (Lest we forget the key collaborations that happen between editors and writers....) Mark and I are also in the finishing stages of our edited collection of airplane reading nonfiction, which will be published sometime this coming spring.

Also recently, I wrote an essay about liberal arts education for Public Books that was prompted by conversations I've been having with my dean and a few colleagues about the mission of our college—I wouldn't have written it without having had multiple discussions over lunch about what we're doing here at Loyola, and why. And I wouldn't have sent it to Public Books without the encouragement from my editor there to send him another piece, after my essay about "critical thinking" garnered some interest over the summer.

Meanwhile, I'm currently working on a new piece of writing, with pokes and prods from my mate Ian Bogost, as savvy a line-editor as they come.

A somewhat tepid review of my new book The End of Airports was published by Publishers Weekly, but I am fortunate enough to have a supremely kind and astute editor at Bloomsbury, Haaris Naqvi, who talked me through what this meant and why not to worry. Then a few hours later the actual books arrived in the mail, and I'm staring at them, and they're beautiful, and I'm feeling like it works, thanks to lots of other people, sometimes, it all works, this wild thing called writing.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Summer Reading

reading a book set in Michigan while in Michigan

This is a partial summer reading list, which appeared in slightly different form on Roy Christopher's always excellent Summer Reading post, and with one addition:

Alphonso Lingis’s book Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) is a fascinating blend of travel writing, philosophy, and what keen David Foster Wallace scholars might identify as a prose experiment in 'the new sincerity'. It is the kind of book that makes one want to write, and also to observe—and how to balance these impulses becomes a dynamic puzzle, a puzzle the book both solves while also flinging all the pieces at the reader.
I was won over by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf, 2015), a book that makes the reader question the very premises of the book while persevering and following through to its satisfying conclusion. It is a book that accepts a certain constraint, and stays true to it—and the result is at turns utterly galling and totally admirable. In the end, Manguso throws down a gauntlet for any would-be diarist or journal keeper (really, any ‘author’!): it is a standard of unsettledness, a zombie aspiration for real-time writing.
Joanna Walsh’s forthcoming Hotel (Bloomsbury, 2015) in the Object Lessons series is a daring act of textual lingering, a vivid mashup of object-oriented thinking and psychoanalytic inquiry. When I first read Walsh’s manuscript I was stunned by its intensity and attentiveness—her book opens up whole new fields of thought and imagination for how a seemingly non-discrete ‘object’ might be accounted for, assembled, and written into. I could go on and on about each of the six Object Lessons books coming out this September, but, moving on…
Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (Penguin, 2015) is such a wonderful post-apocalyptic novel that it immediately replaced Cormac McCarthy's The Road on my 20th-century American Fiction syllabus (we end with books in/about the present moment). One of the things critical things that Mandel's novel has that McCarthy forgot to include is his ruined landscape is...an airport.
Finally, Margret Grebowicz’s excellent The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) blew me away. It is a deft articulation and extension of current eco-theory, breaking new ground, as it were, while recognizing the very fraught terms of ‘breaking’, ‘ground’, and other such naturalized metaphors. The book is framed by a personal narrative, which at once complicates and gives passionate nuance to Grebowicz’s project.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ends of Things

film equipment for The End of the Tour at the Muskegon Airport in Michigan

I wrote about the film The End of the Tour for 3:AM Magazine.

I can't tell if the current hype around David Foster Wallace—spurred on by the film and countless reviews and paratextual essays—is a watershed moment, or the end of something.

"The End of Something" is a weird little breakup story by Hemingway that takes place in northern Michigan. As I work on my new book about Michigan, I keep bumping into Hemingway's descriptions of the region, and I'm trying to use this proximity in unexpected ways.

The End of Airports is at the press! I'm eager to hold this book, as it really does feel like the end of an era, the end of my writing about airports (okay, probably not).

Meanwhile, the next six Object Lessons books are about to be published!

I'm very happy with how this particular batch of books turned out, and also excited to teach a class at Loyola this coming semester that considers the intellectual background of the series as well as some of the books themselves. We'll start with Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter and Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, and go from there...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Evaluated, unplugged

tenkara up in Michigan

I've got a new piece up at Public Books, about the phrase "critical thinking." It's something of a continuation of a post here from a few months prior, and might be part of a nascent short book on liberal arts. 

But mostly this summer I've been working on my book-in-progress called Up in Michigan, which is a bioregional meditation on the Anthropocene—grounded but limited, geographically (if paradoxically) constrained. I'm trying to enact some "situated theory," as Doug Armato referred to it when I described it to him when we were chatting at MLA last january. 

Now with full acknowledgement that I’m “blogging” here, and that the above photo was taken with an iPhone, I wanted to write something about how nice it has been to be relatively unplugged this summer.

During the frantic pace of the school year, life can seem like an unending sprint of checking emails (and responding when necessary), participating in online surveys and committee elections, going to planning and department meetings, eking out rare minutes and occasional hours to write, preparing to teach classes, actually teaching classes, and doing it all over again the next week. Particularly in these hard times for higher education, when the basic premise of what we do* is under scrutiny, when administration turns the screws on any seeming inefficiency or incalculable part of the process, and when Friday afternoons become dreaded, recurring doomsdays for decision-announcing emails—the stresses of the job mount, and morale plummets. 

Summer is thus a welcome respite, and once again I'm very fortunate to be able to be up in Michigan, overspilling my parents' small home with my boisterous family assemblage in tow

Up here I've been revisiting my favorite lakes (and exploring some new ones) throughout the national park, and taking walks in the woods and in the dunes along the lakeshore. My son and I hiked to a massive beaver lodge, and another day we saw a bobcat loping along a riverbank. 

Inspired by a conversation with two of my favorite people last summer, I have been experimenting with tenkara fly fishing—basically a very long limber pole with a line and a fly on the end, and no reel. It's ultra-simple fishing, with minimal equipment—this is what makes it great. It forces you to focus on a small radius of water, aquatic vegetation patterns, and subtle movements. Tenkara was designed and perfected long ago in Japan for mountain stream fishing, and I would love to try it back in Montana where I really learned to trout fish, but for now I've adapted it to marshy lake fishing, for the bass and bluegill that swim in the clear waters of the glacially scraped lakes around my little corner of Michigan. 

I've been reading books that are giving me ideas and offering forms for my current project, and I've been writing (or at least mentally sketching) new stuff about beach combing, canoeing, memory, forest ecology, and bird sounds. But mostly I'd say this summer has been something of a productively negative experience, in the sense that I've been enjoying not being on email, not being on this computer (despite being on it now as I write this). And especially not being glued to my phone (it doesn't get service around here most of the time, which helps; there's wifi, but talk about glacial). I haven't been on twitter as much (I've degenerated into a tweeting parent), and I haven't really missed it. 

Speaking of unplugging, over the past year my university transitioned to online course evaluations, which is great in many respects: one no longer has to take up twenty minutes of precious class time late in the semester to hand out the cold forms, read the instructions verbatim, and then awkwardly leave the room as students glance around in panic. No, instead the students just fill out the course evaluations on their own time, from their computers or iPhones I guess, whenever and wherever they want to. This seems like a good idea, from a standpoint of instructional efficiency as well as in the service of saving vast amounts of paper and labor-time scanning the damn things. I've heard some of my colleagues express wariness, though, as it means that the student can decide exactly when to do an evaluation—for instance, in the moments after you've handed back that "D" paper replete with stringent comments. Watch out, prof.

My course evaluations tend to be fairly positive most of the time. Students generally respond well to my admittedly clumsy oscillations between being laid back and then maybe too intense when we're in the thick of discussions or close reading. There are always a couple students in each class who I can tell loathe my style and resent my attitudes. I try to be welcoming and encouraging to a wide range of students, and to be open to various styles of learning and participating...but finally, it's just me, idiosyncratic weird me, doing my thing year after year, class after class, across assorted literary topics, different books, new students, teaching reading, writing, and, okay, even maybe critical thinking. And most of the time, it works out for all of us.

This semester, though, there was one comment from a student that really stung:
"It seemed like he wasn't really into teaching.
This was on a course evaluation for my David Foster Wallace seminar, so it especially surprised me, as this is a class I offer entirely because of student interest in the late writer, and the course tends to be pretty self-selecting in terms of student motivation. Our conversations are usually spontaneous and passionate as the students and I grapple and tangle with Wallace's challenging, risky, and sometimes galling writing. This class is a joy to teach, because it is driven by sincere excitement (and at times healthy skepticism) concerning this iconic writer qua celebrity—and I get to facilitate and construct conceptual frameworks around our discussions. At best, it's probably one of those undergraduate courses that flirts with the forum & focus of a graduate seminar—and these sorts of classes can be highlights for students and professors alike.

But I will admit that this past semester I was tired by the time the DFW course commenced. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I taught two 75-minute courses back-to-back, at 3:30pm and at 4:55pm. (So, barely enough time between classes to go to the bathroom and/or get a sip of water from the drinking fountain.) The first class was an upper level critical theory course called "Interpretive Approaches"—another course I love, as it is sort of my bread and butter subject matter, and we work our way swiftly from Marx & Freud through Derrida, Barthes, and Kristeva and on to more contemporary thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, Michael Warner, and Lauren Berlant (among many others). This particular class was fantastic, with all the students engaged and enthusiastic about the material—no easy feat to pull off, given various authors' notoriously frustrating writing styles and general world-upending bents. 

Tuesdays and Thursdays also to tend to get completely jammed with meetings, too, before I teach. So suffice it to say that my student's comment hit me hardest in part because they saw through to something true: by 4:55pm I really wasn't into teaching, at least not after a day chock full of (often pointless or just redundant) meetings, and then my first (exhausting, in a good way) class. I will admit that I rather drifted through some of the DFW classes—even though many of our sessions were still vibrant with excellent conversation, students pushing their understandings of the roles of fiction (and art more broadly), the definition and limits of nonfiction, the author-function in Wallace, etc.

By the end of the semester, yes, I was ready for this break. I'll be recharged and keen to teach my three classes come late August. I'm scheduled to teach a class I've never taught before, an introduction to creative writing (who, me?), as well as a new class tangentially about my series Object Lessons, and my reliably fun course 20th-century American Fiction. It'll be a busy semester, but I'm looking forward to it. 

But for now, here I am, up in Michigan. Evaluated, unplugged.

*From the Loyola website, & this is very much in line with how—and why—I teach: Jesuit education is a call to human excellence, to the fullest possible development of all human qualities. This implies a rigor and academic excellence that challenges the student to develop all of his or her talents to the fullest. It is a call to critical thinking and disciplined studies, a call to develop the whole person, head and heart, intellect and feelings.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Proofreading & endorsements

I just finished reading and correcting the proofs for my book The End of Airports. I like reading proofs: suddenly the amorphous mush of writing, rewriting, and abstract manuscript architecture snaps into place, and it becomes real—almost a book.

Still it can be nauseating, rereading for the umpteenth time sentences you've reworked again and again, and which seem like they'll never quite be right. (What am I even saying here, anyway?!?) So it was perfect timing when, as I was in the final stretch of proofreading, eyes getting bleary, creative part of my brain sore, a second endorsement of the book came in. This one was from the philosopher Margret Grebowicz, whose work I admire enormously (especially her newest book, The National Park to Come). An earlier endorsement had come in from the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, whose wonderful book Ordinary Affects I remember reading on the Amtrak train in California; this book helped me finish my dissertation about airports, and I've taught it several times at Loyola in a variety of classes (it's one of my favorite books).

I guess the point of this post is to reflect on a stage of book publishing that can feel the most tenuous, and yet also like crossing a threshold between idea and thing: the point at which a book is on the cusp of going to the printer. And generous endorsements can help this transition, affirming what felt for so long like something purely imaginary, a whim, a mere what if? But now, or soon anyway, it will be a book.

Here are the two endorsements, for which I'm very grateful:
“A strong and innovative book. Tracing speculative paths around and through airports and commercial flight, The End of Airports finds new ways to think about, among other things, drones, airport/aircraft seating, weather, jet bridges, viral stories about flight, tensions with new media expectations and technologies, and seatback pockets. A fascinating read for anyone interested in airports and airplanes, but also for readers of cultural studies, media studies, and creative nonfiction.” –Kathleen C. Stewart, Professor of Anthropology, The University of Texas at Austin
“The golden age of air travel is over, but thanks to Schaberg the airport may become the new figure with which to think place, time, labor, leisure, organization, and communication, as well as hope, fatigue, loneliness, and desire-in other words, the most fundamental problems of life in late capitalism. In the tradition of Benjamin, Barthes, and Baudrillard, this book is theoretically incisive, intimate, pleasurable, and on time. Air travel in all of its multidimensionality, as idea and experience, but also as mood, may finally assume its rightful place in the modern psychic infrastructure.” –Margret Grebowicz, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Goucher College
As I sit by Lake Michigan, these endorsements are helping me turn to my next project, spurring fresh ideas for a new book, which is taking me down unexpected paths—both on the ground and in my mind. The paratextual matter of endorsements is rarely talked about; you're just supposed to blush when you get one, then look away quickly. Yet I find endorsements to be crucial not only in terms of selling the book, but also in terms of maintaining the everyday confidence and focus required to keep writing, to keep thinking up new projects.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Runway 1

In my forthcoming book The End of Airports I touch briefly on David Foster Wallace's airport scenes, primarily in relation to the themes of seating and weather. But I missed an important airport instance, which a former student (thanks, Weldon) was good enough to direct me to, from The Broom of the System:
A bright day, in very early September, everything dry, the sun an explicit thing, up there, with heat coming right off it, but a flat edge of cool running town the middle of the day. A jet airplane stood at lunchtime on Runway 1 at CHA, pointed west to go east, a red-ink drawing of a laughing baby on its side, guys with earmuffs and orange plastic flags torn at by the wind off the flatness taking iron prisms out from under the airplane's wheels, the air behind the engines hot and melting the pale green fields through it, the engines hissing through the dry wind like torches, fuel-shimmers. The guys slowly waving the orange flags. The sun glinting off the slanted glass of the windshield, behind which there are sunglasses and thumbs-ups. One of the flag-guys is wearing a Walkman, instead of earmuffs, and he twirls with his flag. 
This passage is exactly the kind of thing I would have lingered on in my first book, The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. It shows a seemingly tangential airport scene used as a setting in a novel, and it also reflects a certain reading of this space: it is atmospheric, satirical, theatrical, imagistic.... Let's just take it a sentence at a time.

The first sentence establishes a mixed feeling, of sun-scorched tarmac and a weird autumn zephyr. In the next sentence the jet airplane protrudes, standing still "at lunchtime"—thus lending the aircraft animacy, its own cravings? (Or simply reminding us of the consumptive aura of modernity, more generally?) The next sentence is long and very busy, classic Wallace: "Runway 1" is an utterly vague denotation, yet at the same time connotatively powerful; CHA a misnomer (given the novel's geography Wallace likely meant Cleveland Hopkins airport but that would be CLE; CHA is Chattanooga; never mind, it's fiction); "pointed west to go east" suggests the necessary loops involved in the circuits of technoculture; the laughing baby livery a satire of hyperbolic cuteness and mandatory happiness; the ramp workers with their tattered flags perform the bare life of airport labor, pulling chocks from landing gear while exposed in the "melting" air; humans, roaring plane, and landscape merge in this sentence into a fiery shimmer, a collapse of nature and culture, a swarming of senses, affects and objects. The slowly waved orange flags operate rather like Noh fans, signaling some strange drama in process. Mediated behind the glinting glass of the the cockpit we glimpse the pilots via synecdoches of "sunglasses and thumbs-up"—these are not pilots, these are pilot-functions, people stripped down to their rote roles within this mundane (and maybe horrifying) machine. And yet one ramp worker's previously noted earmuffs turn out to be headphones, presumably blasting a stream of private entertainment into the guy's ears, while the "hissing" commercial maelstrom unfurls all around. Is this a glimmer of individual resistance, even expression? Or is the Walkman a mere corollary to the heavy ensemble, the encompassing regime? Is the airport worker plugged in, or tuned out—or is he enacting both comportments at once? The 'twirling' of the flag leaves us with a playful uncertainty as to the determinacy and/or frivolity of this entire passage—and perhaps with respect to the whole grid of acts and trajectories at work here on the tarmac, and beyond.

Through this striking set of images, Wallace offers a highly condensed meditation on some of the puzzles of the jet age. And this is airport reading.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

D.T. Max visit

It was a pleasure to have D.T. Max visit Loyola this past week. My current students had prepared questions about David Foster Wallace, long-form journalism, and writing in the age of digital media. I was so happy with how the conversation turned out—proud of my students and honored to have Daniel with us for a day. Here's the brief introduction I wrote for the event:


I’ve savored Daniel’s profiles in The New Yorker for years, but it was probably his piece “The Unfinished,” written shortly after the untimely death of David Foster Wallace, that really made me realize the courage and care of Daniel’s reportage. This article was the kernel for what would eventually become his biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace—who would dare to take on such a life? Such a cipher, such a tragedy, such a myth. I’ve been teaching the works of David Foster Wallace here at Loyola over the past several years, and to say that his oeuvre and his personality taken together are daunting is to vastly understate the case. Wallace’s fiction and nonfiction tunnel right into our most modern predicaments, from full-saturation entertainment to the worst kind of hyper-mediated solipsism. 

But here’s the thing: Daniel takes on these big personalities, people who have, or who are, changing the shape of a given landscape—be it the slippery terrain of new media, the conservation of Nature, experimental cuisine, cancer, postmodern literature, contemporary art—and Daniel nestles right into the deepest contradictions, paradoxes, and puzzles that lie inside and around such figures and fields.

What makes Daniel’s writing so perfect for our time is that he dares to tackle the uncertain, the undone, the unfinished—those things that are in play, and up for grabs. He takes these subjects on with earnest attention, and with a savvy eye as to their blind spots and everyday conundrums. He writes the kind of stories we need to ponder, if not yet knowing how they will finish.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

College, it's a mess

I've got a new essay up at 3:AM Magazine, called "Total Satisfaction: The New Irony of Customer Service." The piece came out of the classes I am teaching right now, and a sour experience with AT&T customer service helped focus my angle. It's also part of something longer I'm working on, something about liberal arts education in the 21st-century. (Though that makes it sound rather grand; it's not.)

This semester I'm teaching two upper-level courses: a critical theory course called "Interpretive Approaches," and a seminar on the works of David Foster Wallace. At a few points in the semester my classes have overlapped in entirely unplanned ways, and the collision of themes and ideas has been dynamic, to say the least.

Earlier this week in my Wallace seminar a student asked in all sincerity what the point had been of slogging through a particular novella-length story ("The Suffering Channel")—a story that can seem to be little more than (and maybe too much, at that) densely layered dark satire throughout its many many pages of thick description and spiraling corporatese. My student put me on the spot, if kindly and apologetically, admitting that her question was off topic and unfair, but I tried to embrace the spirit of her frustration. What were we doing there, anyway, when there were arguably so many more important things in life to be spending our time on, as Wallace seems to be getting at in this story?

In a fumbling way, I recalled and paraphrased Tim Morton's line about how pausing can be a radical act (from The Ecological Thought, I think?), and I went on about how taking time to engage art, and lingering on paradoxes and contradictions—these things might actually be forms of resistance in a culture that essentially wants us to hurry up and consume, more more more. But even as I said this I could feel how self-justifying it was, us sitting outside in a circle on a balmy New Orleans afternoon, me pontificating about the inestimable value of college to my sweet and smart but likely (understandably) terrified students on the brink of their lives in the so-called real world.

Lately I've found myself at once acutely aware of the privilege and relative aloofness of the college experience, while also feeling the absolute urgency of this space, this time. I'm well aware that higher education is in something of a crisis mode as it attempts to adapt and adjust to the times, times that are themselves fleeting and perpetually obsolescing faster than most will admit. I realize that college is way too expensive, and that the dwindling tenure system and the corollary precarious labor conditions of adjunct instructors are coming to a head. I recognize the perceived gap between traditional education and the contemporary trends (flip that classroom!).

Still...there is something about when it works, when the discussions get intense, when I see students making sudden connections between their courses, across disciplines. When they get truly excited about  projects, and their creativity and imaginations merge with new ideas and discoveries in texts, in the world. There is something that I'm adamant about preserving, even bolstering, as liberal arts education gets increasingly routinized as well as scrutinized for its inefficiencies. But it's not something that can really be measured or seen through data. It just can't. It's a mess, but one that I'm still glad to participate in, if not clean up, exactly.


Here are some things I touch on in the essay at 3:AM:

paying bills

Subaru cars


Read the essay to see how these things might be related.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Liberal arts, two anecdotes


One morning I arrived on campus to discover a new sculpture in our Academic Quad, which already had about eight sculptures placed with plenty of breathing room around the lawn. In a year of salary freezes, budget cuts, and no new faculty lines, some of my colleagues were outraged that the university was spending money on new (and excessive looking) art. It didn’t help that this particular sculpture vaguely resembled a giant pair of testicles, or in the offhand description of one of my students, “a big droopy ball sack.”

Later that day a team of workers in cargo pants and black T-shirts began to install yet another sculpture in the center of the quad: this one was a precarious stack of wooden chairs that interlocked legs in an intricate pattern. What was going on here? 

It turned out they were props. It was all for a movie.

Unbeknownst to any of us (at least my colleagues and students who wandered around these new sculptures, angry or bemused), a scene for 22 Jump Street was being filmed on our campus, and they were using our sculpture garden as a typical college setting. Only it wasn’t typical enough—there weren’t adequate sculptures for it to really look like a college quad. And apparently one of these simulacral sculptures (the rumors were beginning to circulate), would be destroyed in the making of this scene. (Car chase, wreck.) In order to make a college, you’ve got to break some art.

The next morning when I took my Literature & Environment students outside for class, we noticed that all the maroon Loyola signs had been concealed, and industrial-blue signage that read Metropolitan City State College was displayed liberally throughout the quad. We were now sitting in a newly renamed Meditation Sculpture Garden (stressed by the subtitle “Quiet Zone”). It was a surreal class that morning, discussing the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘wilderness’ while stern grips and sweaty set assistants bustled around us, clamping things down and positioning hidden clusters of spotlights, making our college campus into a more dazzlingly authentic looking place for higher learning. Jean Baudrillard eat your heart out.

Having recently made it successfully through the tenure application process at my university, I decided to quip on twitter that I had been promoted to associate professor of English at Metropolitan City State College. And my friends and followers favorited, retweeted, and congratulated me—in earnest or ironically, no way to tell. Twitter, like so much of the Internet, can be impressively tone deaf.


Last weekend I listened to a Diane Rehm Show podcast called "Worries About the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges." Among some of the more insightful examples and expected axioms offered throughout the program, I was struck the absence of a certain phrase: critical thinking. This phrase has been used to the point of exhaustion to describe something inestimable about liberal arts education, and has become something of a placeholder to describe without describing what college is good for.

Critical thinking: it's something ubiquitous on syllabi (especially for first-year courses) as a learning objective or assessable outcome, but something equally difficult to pin down or articulate with any exactitude. What is critical thinking? Well, you know it when you see it—or when you do it. Or maybe you recognize when it isn't happening, because you notice that everyone is acting like robots (like docile robots, anyway). Whatever it is or is supposed to be, it's a phrase that usually gives me the creeps, because when I hear it or see it, it's often in the service of something mandatory, obligatory, required—it's a rhetorical tic that becomes ritualized and normalized, and is often uttered in the context of drawn-out committee meetings to nodding faculty. In short, the phrase often comes to mean the opposite of something produced by sudden break, rupture, or flash of insight (critical is etymologically related to crisis). 

But so the point is that "critical thinking" as a phrase often gets trotted out in rote ways, as a vague aim of a certain kind of pedagogy. If you put someone on the spot and ask what it really is, you will likely induce some incredible facial expressions that veer between puzzlement and horror, depending on the person. "You know, it's like, thinking critically about things!" Needless to say, this sort of response doesn't win accolades in terms of definitional clarity.

Still, it was odd to suddenly not hear this phrase (or at least, not as a recurring trope) on a radio program focusing on the value of liberal arts education. It was as if all the prior repetitions and insistences had set it (i.e., "critical thinking") up for all too easy dismissal. The guests on the show discussed liberal arts in terms of creating "well rounded" subjects individuals, but not one of them pressed the point that education might actually involve developing a critical stance toward the world. (Save maybe Catharine Bond Hill of Vassar, who kept trying to steer the conversation back to economics.) Because that's really what critical thinking is, isn't it? It's being able to have—and hone, and articulate—a contrary attitude toward things in society or culture that seem totally fucked up to you but toward which most people shrug and go about their business.

Critical thinking is a comportment toward the world as it is, with a mind to changing it for the better. Isn't this what we hope for out of college education, at its best? That students will, in learning about the world from a range of disciplinary perspectives, actually want to change it for the better? Because if so, then all of the rampant and tepid talk about higher education in terms of professionalism, technological proficiency, vocation, career training...this is all a lot of very dull resignation, a stoical attitude that things are basically set in stone now, and all we can do is shape ourselves around the mold. Oh, and make sure you get some critical thinking along the way; tick that box.

Monday, March 9, 2015


I've been thinking a lot about art lately. Cleaning up my office recently, I stumbled on some old paintings I made in Bozeman and in Davis, between ten and fifteen years ago. The one above is of the tamarc at the Bozeman airport, where I worked and even once spent the night. When I lived in Bozeman I watched my friend Greg Keeler turn gloppy acrylic paint into eerie post-western landscapes (like this one). I mostly painted moody little watercolors and gouaches of the mountains, which I called "visual haiku" and sent off to friends and family in the mail. They were really very little: usually no bigger than 1.5" by 3" and often smaller. Here's one:

Later, when I was a grad student at UC Davis, I was lucky to take an MFA studio course with Mike Henderson, and the art students in that class were on fire with brilliant ideas, and were patient with my ramblings about airports (I was working on my dissertation at the time, about airports in American literature & culture). So patient, in fact, that for the final project that semester, Mike had me read one of my essays about airports while he played a partly ruined guitar and the other students played improvised instruments—and then, to top it off, Mike took the recording of this performance and played it in his car during a rainy night while he drove in circles around the Oakland Airport arrivals and departures loop, all of which is captured on film from his videocamera which fell over on the dashboard as he was driving, and so for many minutes you hear the background noise of the studio session while watching the sideways airport signs through the swish swishing of the windshield wipers. I'm not exaggerating. I still have a copy of the VHS tape Mike gave me, in a drawer in my office (and no way to play it). This was a true graduate school experience in northern California, am I right?

Also during my time at UC Davis, I was invited to take part in a meeting of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, when they were were discussing plans for new public artworks to be placed in the renovated Terminal B at the Sacramento airport. Part of my dissertation research involved a public tour of the Sacramento airport art (before the new terminal was finished), which I later reincorporated into my book The Textual Life of Airports. Airport art fascinates me for the ways it plays off the primary experience (and spectacle) of flight.

But less nostalgically, more tangibly and in the present: my son Julien (now four) likes nothing better these days than to work on elaborate art projects at his craft table, turning our kitchen into a glorious mess every few hours. We can barely keep up. These projects range from simple ink drawings and slightly less simple paintings, to sculptures made out of ribbons cut from a giant map and a collage of photographs which we realized was Julien's rendition of something like proto-Instagram.

We think he got the latter idea from Instagram itself: he has been observing carefully as my partner Lara has been working on a new series of scrolling images that play with(in) the digital matrix, crossing lines and forms. (I guess Julien probably hears us talking relentlessly about the possibilities and pitfalls of social media, digital reproduction, art's aura, etc. etc. Walter Benjamin, you called it.)

When I showed Julien the work of Tara Donovan, we had to take a spontaneous trip to our neighborhood Walgreens to buy a bulk pack of plastic cups so Julien could try working with them. And after I took down our Julie Mehretu book and explained the scale of some of her works, we had to go to Lowe's and obtain a giant scroll of contractor's paper so that Julien could unroll it on the floor and get lost in shapes, lines, and meandering squiggles. (Don't get me wrong, I'm not just being romantic here: part of the thrill of this interest Julien has is purely pragmatic, on my end: it keeps him seriously busy for multiple hours at a time.)

Julien got on an architecture kick the other day, and now the floor of his room vaguely resembles the opening scenes of the film Wall·E, where you can't quite distinguish actual skyscrapers from the tremendous piles of rubbish. (When I get weary of his demands to build yet another tower, Julien lambasts me with the axiom, "Builders never give up!")

Last week as I was preparing for my seminar on David Foster Wallace, I glanced over at a small box of Legos that I keep in my office, for when Julien occasionally joins me there on the weekends. I had this sudden thought: Maybe I should take the Legos to class and ask my students to build and present concepts for their final projects! I didn't do it that day, but I think I will plan something like this next semester: get my students to make something, in another medium, before they start to write. Of course writing can be a form of art, too—but we often forget this, even in (sometimes especially in) college English classes.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Revisiting Air Force One

Air Force One w/ AT-ATs © Joey DeVilla

Ten years ago, when I was a graduate student at UC Davis, I wrote a paper about the presidential airplane Air Force One. It was for a seminar on political theory, and I was considering this exceptional plane in light of Michel Foucault's writings on "governmentality"—or how methods and modes of rule get distributed and dispersed (in sometimes the smallest and seemingly most insignificant ways) throughout society and culture. I was actually looking less at the plane itself and more at a very curious ancillary text: the narrative "product description" for the plane that appeared for some time on the Boeing website. (It's gone now, replaced by a far more prosaic "overview" of the plane's features. But it was a fascinating text, revealing so much about the myths and fantasies embodied by this as-if self-evident aircraft.) I still have the transcript; here it is:
Air Force One Background Info 
Air Force One is a Boeing 747-200B aircraft that was extensively modified to meet presidential requirements. The original paint scheme was designed at the request of President John F. Kennedy, who wanted the airplane to reflect the spirit of the national character. He also directed that the words "United States of America" appear prominently on the fuselage, and that the U.S. flag be painted on the vertical stabilizer. 
Boeing delivered two uniquely modified Boeing 747-200 Air Force One presidential aircraft in 1990. The airplanes replaced the Boeing 707-320 airframe that had served the nation's chief executives for nearly 30 years.  
U.S. presidents have flown on Boeing aircraft since 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to Casablanca aboard a Boeing model 314 Clipper. In 1962, U.S. presidents were provided modern jet transportation with the introduction of the Boeing model 707-320B, which was to become known by the radio call sign used when the president is aboard: Air Force One. In all, seven presidents were served by the 707-320B. 
Today, the chief executive flies aboard a modified 747-200B, the newest and largest presidential airplane. The 747 is ideally suited to support the travel requirements of the president. 
The Flying "Oval Office" 
The 747s were built at the Boeing Everett, Wash., facility, then flown to the company's Wichita, Kan., facility for configuration as Air Force One. The aircraft were extensively modified to meet presidential requirements. The flying "Oval Office" has 4,000 square feet of interior floor space, which features a conference/dining room, quarters for the president and the first lady, and an office area for senior staff members. 
Another office can be converted into a medical facility when required. There are work and rest areas for the presidential staff, media representatives and Air Force crews; two galleys are each capable of providing food for 50 people. 
Lower lobes of the aircraft were modified to accommodate the airplane's self-contained air stairs and interior stairways that lead to the main deck. The lower lobes also feature unique storage to accommodate substantial amounts of food (up to 2,000 meals) and mission-related equipment. In addition, this area contains an automated self-contained cargo loader and additional electronics equipment. 
About 238 miles of wire wind through the presidential carrier. This is more than twice the wiring found in a typical 747. Wiring is shielded to protect it from electromagnetic pulse, which is generated by a thermonuclear blast and interferes with electronic signals. 
The airplane's mission communications system provides worldwide transmission and reception of normal and secure communications. The equipment includes 85 telephones, as well as multi-frequency radios for air-to-air, air-to-ground and satellite communications. 
Air Force One provides longer range for presidential travel and can be self-sufficient at airports around the world. Modified for aerial refueling, it has virtually unlimited range. 
Up to 70 passengers and 23 crew members can be accommodated, including necessary ground crew required to travel with the plane. 
The 89th Presidential Airlift Group at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., is responsible for Air Force One, which is housed in a 140,000-square-foot maintenance and support complex at Andrews Air Force Base.